Alissa Ackerman & Tom Stranger
In 2016 I watched Tom’s Ted Talk and was moved to tears. Then I read South of Forgiveness, which he co-authored with Thordis Elva. I could not have imagined then that I’d have the opportunity to be acquainted with Tom! Yet here we were on a beach on Australia’s Gold Coast walking along the beach. The clear turquoise waters of the Pacific meet the cloudless sky. The waves slowly crashed onto white sand as we walked barefoot side-by-side in the surf toward Elephant Rock.
As I have written about before, I have a love and respect for elephants that cannot be understated. I have over 100 elephant replicas in my office, many of which were given to me by people whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence. The symbolic nature of us walking barefoot on a beach toward Elephant Rock is not lost on me.
After my rape on a rocky beach over nineteen years ago, I created a sacred ritual. Every time I go to the beach, I place twelve rocks (or shells, or pieces of small driftwood) in the sand. I’m not sure why I chose the number twelve or even why I chose rocks. Others have questioned the symbolism of the ritual and here’s what I’ve discerned about it.
In Judaism, it is customary to leave small stones on the graves of loved ones. There are many explanations for this ancient tradition, but two stand out.
- Some say that leaving a stone keeps the loved one’s soul on the earth for longer.
- The Hebrew word for pebble is also the word for bond. By placing a stone on the grave, we show that we have been there and that we still keep that loved one in our memory.
The number twelve has spiritual significance in Judaism, as well. It represents totality and wholeness.
Leaving rocks on the beach began as a way of saying to the part of myself that I lost that night, “Stay. You lived.” Continuing the ritual all these years says “I remember my past and I honor my present where I am complete and whole.
While driving to Currumbin, the beach where Elephant Rock sits, I asked Tom if he would complete the ritual with me.
Rocks and stones have significance to Tom, too. He writes:
In 1996, the small elliptical rock was initially picked up from a shallow pool in a rock shelf that I knew very well. It was a place we jumped from, sunned ourselves, dumped our snorkeling gear, chased toadfish and wrestled with my brothers. The rock was put in my pocket to be a slice of home. Something familiar. Something I would come back to in a year’s time after my student exchange was over.
Months later, the rock morphed into a gift to my then Icelandic girlfriend Thordis, given whimsically as a small fraction of a faraway place, in a moment of teenage affection, and attached to an idea that she might bring it back to Australia one day.
In 2013, I saw the rock again when Thordis showed it to me, and handed it back to me. As I understand it, the rock now had an entirely different symbolism and connection to another place.
It was now an anchor that linked Thordis to her childhood room. On Dec 17, 1996, after our school’s ball, I carried an incapacitated Thordis into that room, and instead of putting her to bed, I took a misguided expectation to the darkest place. I raped her. The rock was now linked to that night.
I know somewhat of the significance that can be carried within small dense stones.
When Alissa explained to me that she places 12 stones in a row in the sand whenever she goes to a beach, it was clear that this was a personal and powerful observance. She told me her assault took place when she was 16, on a beach and that this act is a part of her healing. Along with other meanings and powers she described to me, it transmutes her connection to a place.
To say the very least, it was an honor to share the drive with her to Elephant rock at Currumbin Beach, so that together we could find 12 little solid objects and place them in a row in the sand.
Even just to spend an hour driving there in a small hatchback, sharing details of our supportive partners, challenges we’ve had with disclosures to family, and experiences of a self-protective denial, was an experience I’ll never forget. Rarely do we meet people who have such little division between the personal and professional, and I learnt that Alissa inhabits her investments in the most pure of ways.
I don’t think days come much more beautiful than this one on the Gold Coast. There was the slightest Northerly breeze. It was one of those weekend days where the batteries seem to have fallen out of the clock. Everyone was moving slowly and enjoying time with family. It was nice to take the time to absorb it all and to chat whilst walking along the beach, examining the objects that washed up on the tideline, and to see which ones were suitable rocks, shells or seed pods.
When we got to the Elephant Rock headland, Alissa asked me where I felt we should place the items. I suggested the edge of a calm, translucent rock pool that was a few meters in front of us. Placing the stones and shells in a row on the flat sand was a very deliberate and peaceful act.
It is fair to say that I picked many things up with Alissa that day, learning a lot about her profession, her past, her humor, her strength, her amazing family, her now. I also joined her in leaving a few things on the sand.
I felt exactly the same way about our time together. I wondered whether Tom felt awkward about the trip. He mentioned afterwards that he considered whether I felt safe with him. I made it clear to him and I’ll make it clear now: at no time did I feel even one iota of fear while together. Tom is genuine, authentic, sensitive, and empathetic. He is exactly the kind of person I choose to have as a friend. As such, we created a safe and vulnerable space where we shared deeply and from the heart about our partners and our life paths. I talked about my children. Tom was even privy to a FaceTime call with my wife and my youngest son. I could not think of a more perfect day to be together in this place.
I haven’t walked on a beach with a man other than my father or father-in-law in almost twenty years, but I know that this beach walk with Tom and what I’ve asked him to do with me will be life-altering for us both.
We knelt near the calm, translucent rock pool and began placing the rocks and shells in a row. We each lingered for an extra moment, before reaching for our phones to snap a picture. I’m still not sure I’ve found the right words to describe what this ritual with Tom meant to me. I’ve completed it more times than I can count. Earlier this year, I even completed it in the place where I was raped. Yet, I am still unsure of the right words. Here are a few that come to mind: completion, peace, healing, and pure. Completing this with Tom captured its true meaning - to remember the past and to honor the present. I hope Tom felt this, as well.
As we walked back, Tom asked if it was okay to swim in the ocean for a while. I sat on the rocks and watched him. He seemed at peace in the water, perhaps even freer. I may have just sat on the rocks, but I felt freer, too.